Gurkhas ambush Japanese in Burmese jungle

A Gurkha soldier assisting a wounded comrade.  An image by Cecil Beaton from the Arakan Campaign, Burma, January 1943 - May 1945:
A Gurkha soldier assisting a wounded comrade. An image by Cecil Beaton from the Arakan Campaign, Burma, January 1943 – May 1945.

Far out in the steaming jungles of Burma a British guerrilla force of ‘Chindits’ were operating behind the Japanese front lines. Their mission was to blow up railways and communications and to cause alarm and confusion by attacking the Japanese on their own territory.

The Chindits were very much an experimental force and they would learn much about survival in the jungle in this first patrol. A large part of the force were Ghurkha soldiers, men recruited from Nepal who served under British officers.

Harold James was one of the young officers who had been sent off by his commanding officer, Mike Calvert, to set up an ambush on a track believed to be used by the Japanese:

Then round the bend came a squad of japanese soldiers, moving quite quickly, but not very alert, chattering, rifles not held for instant action.

A Gurkha fired too early, the rest quickly joining in, raking the enemy with automatic and rifle fire. The front group jerked and twisted, caught by the fusillade. Behind them a few more had just time to raise their rifles, before being met by more bursts of automatic fire. The jungle around us echoed with the sound, a puff of smoke drifted across, there was a strong smell of cordite followed by silence, and in the slight hollow lay some seven or eight bodies.

But I was almost sure that at least one, maybe two had escaped behind the bend, because of the first early shot. And I was right. A rifle bullet whined overhead, followed quickly by another. ‘We must get him, Sahib,’ Tilbir said.

‘Give me your tommy-gun,’ I said to the lance-naik. Then I said to Tilbir, ‘Fire the grenade discharger cup,” thinking, that will please Mike! ‘Keep him occupied while I get round behind.`

Taking the GF rifle with the discharger cup attachment himself, Tilbir fired a couple of 68 grenades. And as they exploded I slipped away from the group, to cross the hollow further up and into some cover.

There were more rifle shots, then another two grenades. I worked my way through the undergrowth which was not very thick, and suddenly came upon the track again, and a jap who from behind cover was raising himself to fire into the ambush party on the other side.

I gave him a burst from the tommy-gun. He arched up, the rifle slipping from his hands, then rolled right over on to his back without a single sound.

I called out to Tilbir that I was coming along the track, and he acknowledged. As I stepped out onto the track I glanced down at the Jap. His face was grey, blood in his mouth, eyes half-opened, but staring accusingly. Then it struck me that this was the first time I had ever seen a man I had killed. I knew I had shot enemy at the Irrawaddy, but they were distant figures.

God knows he could have had a wife and family back in japan. But he would have killed me remorselessly if he could have fired first, and I felt no sense of guilt. But I looked quickly away, determined not to remember the man’s face, knowing that I could have no control over my dreams, recalling the warning from an old ex-Gurkha colonel who spoke of his experiences in World War I.

I walked past the dead man, past the seven other bodies and returned to the platoon position.

‘That was well done, Sahib,’ Tilbir said. He was an excellent, experienced NCO, who knew that he had a young relatively inexperienced second-lieutenant on his hands. But I was not proud or foolish enough not to seek his advice if I were in any doubt.

With the combination of my Hindi, which was very good, and the amount of Gurkhali I was picking up quite quickly, and his reasonable knowledge of Hindi, with Gurkhali mixed in, we were able to reach a good, clear understanding.

See Harold James: Across the Threshold of Battle: Behind Japanese Lines with Wingate’s Chindits – Burma 1943

Chindits Operation LongCloth 1943 has much more on this operation and the men who took part in it.

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